Shannon is an assistant at L’Arche Cleveland. They wrote this piece for L’Arche USA’s newsletter, Hope Signs.
There was a picture on my dorm room wall that was a constant distraction from reading the writings of St. Francis of Assisi. It was of a smiling face on a brochure for a therapy camp for kids with disabilities where I had worked for many summers. He wore a forest-green shirt with the insignia of the camp and next to his wheelchair, was one of his physical therapists. I kept gazing at his face and reminiscing about campfires and roasting marshmallows. I was supposed to be writing my capstone project for my theology degree on the intersection between Catholic social teaching and disability studies, intending to go to graduate school the next fall to eventually write my Master’s thesis on the subject. But I found myself hungry to not merely be studying about people with disabilities, but to go back to living with and serving people with disabilities. Not sure of which path to take, I turned to the works of St. Francis for advice.
A first glance at the Earlier Rule that St. Francis of Assisi wrote for the men who followed him shows two chapter titles that seem to be in contradiction – one is titled, “Let the Brothers Not Receive Money,” and the other, “Begging Alms.” One would naturally be confused on how one can beg alms and yet not receive money, and even further how one could sustain themselves without money at all if they cannot work or accept alms. For those who know the life and spirituality of Francis, his way of life was one impressed by the Poor Christ, embracing poverty in both body and spirit. But, even in living a life of voluntary poverty, one must be able to care for themselves in some way, and so it is natural to wonder how one can care for themselves if they cannot even accept alms.
Francis wanted to be a mirror image of Jesus and imitated Christ in that he accepted nothing for himself alone, but rather for the good of the community. Early on, Francis would not permit the brothers to accept any money or goods unless it was necessary for the sick brothers. He also wanted to ensure that the brothers were not merely giving money to the lepers and the poor of Assisi, but to care for them personally. Francis writes in his chapter on begging alms that the brothers “must rejoice when they live among people considered of little value and looked down upon, among the poor and powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wayside.”1 It was the intention of Francis that the brothers of his order would live among the poor and marginalized as one of them, to care for them as they cared for one another. Lepers in his day were shunned by society and isolated in little colonies on the outskirts of cities. He did not want his brothers to put a few coins in the cup of the poor and walk away, but to develop relationships with them, to draw them out of isolation. It was his vision that the brothers would care for one another and those they served as human persons worthy of the dignity of being welcomed into communion.
L’Arche lives the early rule of Francis in that assistants live among people that society wrongly considers to be of little value. The beauty of L’Arche is that it recognizes and strives to uphold the humanity of its core members. Assistants enter into the river of the lives of core members, rather than just filling their cups and walking away. The alms given in L’Arche are not so much of money, but rather that of time and of love. This almsgiving is not one-sided since core members in turn offer the gift of their friendship and communion. It is for this reason that I decided to come to L’Arche: I was attracted by the pragmaticism of relationships and of community. I did leave behind dreams of grad school, but like Francis and the Poor Christ, I have in turn embraced and been embraced by friendships in L’Arche. In light of these relationships, my time in L’Arche has convicted me that it is not so much that people need what we have to give, but that they need the gift that we are that can be given in relationships.
1. Francis of Assisi, Francis of Assisi: The Saint, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short, vol. I, 3 vols., Francis of Assisi: Early Documents (New York: New City Press, 2019) 70.